Compos Mentis


By Hoffmann the Organizer

This week’s presidential debate was shocking on every level.  The two candidates contending to lead the biggest economy and military power in the world were visibly and audibly incompetent (in the technical sense of mental and physical health).  Both parties need a new candidate, though only one, the Democrats, is even considering it, something that should have been done a long time ago.  In any case, this painful spectacle does, at least, prompt an important question: what would competence (compos mentis) actually look like in a candidate for president.

To answer this question all we have to do is recall Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic speech to the United Nations in 1988. In it he named the necessary priorities for humanity in their proper order of urgency: end the threat of nuclear war; preserve a human-supporting environment; and build a just global economic order.

In other words, a candidate for President of the United States should be able to project the need to address these three items in that order.  Firstly, we need to immediately end the three wars we have become embroiled in with Russia (a hot one on the edge of nuclear confrontation), Iran (a proxy war with mainly civilian casualties), and China (a still cold but tense standoff).  Secondly, we need to truly address the climate crisis, retooling our global economy to actually reduce energy use and resource extraction.  And finally, though hopefully starting simultaneously with the two above, we need to restore social democratic standards of equality in the developed world and extend those to the historically deprived peoples of the earth.  That can start right away with global systems of progressive taxation and unions for all.

Whatever one might think of our adversaries in these wars, a basic sign of compos mentis would be the recognition that it is incumbent on “the richest and most powerful nation in the world” (as President Biden describes us) to display enough magnanimity to open negotiations to end the wars and rebuild cooperative economic and security relations with those countries. Our postwar magnanimity toward Germany and Japan, after their having launched the unprecedented horrors of World War II, was more important to the ultimate victory than the numberless firebombs we dropped on their cities. Unfortunately, President Biden has built a foreign policy that eschews constructive diplomacy in favor of the naked projection of military power.

Once we are engaged in negotiations for peace with these countries, we can simultaneously shift the focus to how we can work together to stave off eco-system collapse.  Again, the US, as the nation with both the greatest historic responsibility for the crisis and the one with the greatest resources to address it, must lead with magnanimity.  And, in this case, our contribution should come more from reducing or sharing our resources than by spending them. 

Then we might start discussing how we can return the spiraling accumulation of humanity’s wealth in the hands of a tiny minority of the ultrarich to the peoples who created that wealth.  As Thomas Piketty points out, while many nations have a trade deficit with one or another nation, ALL the nations of the world together have a standing trade deficit. “With . . . Mars?” Piketty drily asks; no, with the stateless wealth of the ultrarich!  Turning our massive investments in militarism and these offshored hoards back to the service of a humane civilization could begin to rectify history’s long log of injustices.

Despite a cacophony of garbled accusations and claims, we did hear some small acknowledgements of these crises at the debate.  Biden at least admits there is a climate crisis, though he did more harm to the environment by turning to militarism than he could possibly have helped with his mainly corporate greenwashing approach. Biden also raised some taxes on the wealthy and pledged at the debate to do more.  On the other hand, Trump pledged to end the war in Ukraine (and, at least for the moment, the nuclear threat it poses), though he would “finish the job” in Gaza and show China and Iran who’s boss.  Non compos mentis here, I’m afraid.

“What about democracy?” you ask.  Trump’s megalomania, paranoia, and resentment are all real and present threats to democracy.  Still, they are, like January 6th itself, resistible threats.  Under Biden, the undemocratic security state has reasserted itself with a vengeance.  We the People sit passively by as NATO expands, missiles are deployed, alliances with the Saudis are advanced, and sabers are rattled in the South China Sea.  The entire Democratic caucus of the US Congress, which could not unite to pass Build Back Better, rubber stamps over a hundred billion dollars in arms to war zones without one final dissenting vote.  And, just as throughout the entire Cold War and again in the “War on Terror,” this security state is cynically justified as necessary to defend democracy.

So, please find a new candidate to defeat Trump.  In fact, please replace BOTH candidates.  And please, please (and I’m down on my knees now) find a candidate with the compos mentis to prioritize saving humanity.

Hoffmann earned his pen name and sobriquet “the Organizer” through years of work on campaigns for peace, economic justice, and environmental sustainability in numerous cities and regions of the US, as well as in Europe.